Tips from a VO professional for eLearning audio scriptwriters

Hi all, my wife is a professional Voicoever artist ( handy for me yes;) Anyway, I stole some stuff about preparing scrips for VO from her website to post here:

If you follow these tips below, you will get a better result from your voice artist and they will finish faster, saving you time and money.

If you want your audio track to adhere to a specific time, please specify the time and the allowed variance. (Eg a 30 second read, but between 28 and 30 seconds is OK). Also, once your script is ready to go, read it out loud and time it with a stopwatch. Otherwise you may get a read that is too fast, because I am trying to fit in all the words you have written in the time you have specified. As a result it may sounds rushed, too ‘hard sell’ or just plain hard to understand.

Read your script out loud, does it sound like people would if they are just discussing or explaining something? If not then rewrite it. People understand and relate to natural dialogue more easily, than formal language.

Double spacing
If you double space your lines of text and use a sans-serif font like Helvetica, Arial or Verdana (a font without the squiggly bits hanging off the letters like Times New Roman) you will find your script easier to review and make comments on and easier to proof read.

Non-breaking lines
Also if your script spans several pages, avoid using paragraphs or blocks of text breaking over two pages. This will allow you to get a better feel for the flow of the script as it will be read by me and will make it easier for me to read in the studio.

Please ensure you provide phonetic pronunciations for anything you think I may not know how to pronounce. This includes things like place names, technical terms, peoples names, words, not in common usage, slang and so on. Just put the pronunciation in brackets after the word using the following convention: phonetics (fon-et-icks).

Guide track
If you have very specific ideas about the rhythm, timing, breath, intonation, style etc for the voice over you want, a great idea is to record a guide track. A guide track is a recording you make reading the script exactly as you want it done. I will then copy your approach as closely as possible.

Multiple-talent reads
If you are going to combine my voice parts with another artist’s (eg like two people having a conversation), ideally, get us all together in one room. If that’s not possible, it is always helpful for me to hear the other voice talent’s audio part when recording mine. This makes it a lot more natural, because instead of acting as if I am responding or interacting with the other talent, I can genuinely react. If I’m the first one to record, send my parts to the other artist so they can react naturally. This will give you a better end product.


Putting the Instructional back into ID

I have used many Storyboarding/ID processes over the years including:

  • Word docs with columns for text, interactions, programmers notes, images etc, giving the developers/designers a fair amount of flexibility.
  • Specifications/wireframes docs, that incorporate script elements, but are also very proscriptive about design and functionality.
  • Powerpoint or visual storyboards, that help clients experience what they want before it is built.

But, one step I haven’t seen mentioned much is pedagogy. Before writing any specs or storyboards, I sit down with the content and the objectives and I figure out how pedagogy can help me achieve them. Then I figure out how I am going to apply that pedagogy in the learning design.

Eg: I have some bank tellers thinking they are cold calling customers and feeling uncomfortable and believing it takes them away from useful activities. In fact they are warm calling existing customers and can make target a lot more easily by cross selling them.

So with this in mind, I settle on Cognitive Dissonance Theory. From that point forward, most of my design decisions are in the service of achieving the objectives, using this theory.

Learning activities center on challenging perceptions, creating dissonance and providing supporting evidence for the new position. I blend eLearning, with role play phone calls and workplace mentoring to help learners feel secure and address their specific concerns etc…

This up front reasoned approach, not only puts the ‘instructional’ back in instructional designer but it creates a touchstone for making decisions, resolving disagreements with clients, discerning fluffy activities from meaningful ones and so on.


The value of storyboarding

How valuable do you think formal storyboarding is in rapid elearning design?

It is valuable generally because:

  • A signed off storyboard gives you a basis for variations and asking for more time and money.
  • It helps you defend yourself during blamestorming sessions (should they arise)
  • It allows SME’s, legal and marketing etc to argue about content for 6 months and finally agree on something, before you do the bulk of the work.
  • It forces you to more carefully consider your choice of words, and reasoning for choosing/designing activities without getting swept along by aesthetics and sexiness factors….ooooh pretty colors, moving images We’ve all done it
  • It allows easier disaggregation, work flow and paralleling of development tasks (you take the script column, you take the graphics column, now go…
  • It allows for a step that can catch issues, mistakes, wrong direction taken etc, before getting into costly development phase where you may have to redo graphics, animations, audio and video etc.
  • It creates clarity for downstream people like coders, flash dev, graphic designers etc because everything is written down and is unambiguous
  • If you are working with corporate branding, style guides etc, its provides an opportunity to create a consistent approach/message, brand – eg adds a governance/compliance layer to the dev process.

How much time does storyboarding add to development?

In a traditional eLearning dev cycle (using dreamweaver, working in a team etc), ID and storyboarding accounts for about 30-40% of time and budget. But its swings and roundabouts, because what you spend in storyboarding, you save in development, because everything is clear and agreed.

However in rapid eLearning where 1 person might be doing the whole thing end to end the case is less clear. When I am developing courses for retailing (ie for my own benefit, no client), I do a learning design, but I script on the fly as I am building. I do this because it is quicker, I don’t have to answer to anyone (so no need for a formal script), I enjoy the process more and I’ve been doing ID for a long time, so I know I can do it safely.

If I’m working for a client, then I do a full storyboard with design and script, for the reasons stated in the previous question. Either way I do a learning design, which is probably 5-10% of time/budget and then maybe the script, which would be 20-30% of time/budget.


Selling eLearning online

To successfully market eLearning directly to learners, you need to wear two hats, a learning professional and an online marketer. You now have customers, not learners.

So things like Porters 4 P’s and his 5 forces are a great primer to get you thinking.

Things to think about:

  • Registering keyword rich domains and search engine optimisation, Pay per click strategies.
  • Building your courses to minimise support calls (support erodes margin)
  • The right marketing mix that balances effectiveness with cost of sale (its no good selling a $100 course, that cost you $95 to get the sale)
  • I’ve found the best marketing is PPC and natural SEO, sometimes radio and print works but you have to get your audience segmentation and targeting just right
  • Partnerships (eg I have a partnership with an educational body, an LMS/SEO specialist and me the developer)
  • Affiliate and resellers need to be considered too, to broaden and deepen your market penetration
  • Finding the right course to build – Its really about the potential market and price point, not about expertise you have, because expertise can easily be found) – So selling a course to 4000 people per year, of which you get $5 per course is worth spending 300 hours authoring, as might be selling a course to 500 people and getting $200 per enrollment – I’ve developed a spreadsheet that allows me to quantify risk for potential new products to help me decide if its worth it and if so, how much per enrollment do I need to make it worthwhile for me to do it (based on a 3 year break even)
  • Also, assume some time for annual course maintenance and a complete rebuild every 5 years (because the technology and delivery will have moved on so much by that time)
  • If its a competitive market, what are your key differentiators, in the lower end market (basic compliance) its price followed by convenience (eg instant online certificates) followed by course quality. For higher end markets (management, sales, leadership etc) its quality and value adds (eg personalised service, telephone coaching, etc)

Keeping it simple in eLearning

I think its worth drawing a distinction between simple and elegant.

Simplicity can be achieved by iterative reductionism and in so doing may remove important nuance. Elegance is usually achieved by a sophisticated and complex process that results in something that appears simple, but is far from it.

I’ve done this many times with for example compliance training, in which reams of desperately boring material is culled and rewritten to a shining brilliance of brevity comprising tightly targeted messages reflecting minimum standards of compliance for specific examples within that organization.

But what I’ve lost in taking this approach is the opportunity to move people and therein lay the elegance. To cut through the legal compliance aspect to the heart of the matter, be it ethical, legal or whatever and bring that thing to life through amazing, moving examples that show learners the essence of the matter and educate them in such a way that they understand the principles and can apply them to any situation.

That elegance appears simple to the uninitiated, but is in fact incredibly hard.


How do you provide learning for different levels?

A simple way is to pitch the material at the middle and provide a simpler layer and a more in depth layer available as pdf’s or other resources. You can do this on screen too, with drill down information. Also things like pop-up definitions on words can help

Learning styles is bunk so I wouldn’t worry about that, recent research has found everyone likes visual learning and active/task focused learning.

Another point is pre-assessments, front loading a module with a pre-assessment, if they pass, they can skip that module, works well in time poor and mixed skill level audiences.


High achievers not so high in learning games

Now this one is a real suprise. Everyone assumes that learning that is fun delivers better results right? There’s research to support it, e-learning games are very constructivist, they motivate learners more effectively than boring old traditional learning approaches, they very hot, very now! But…

A new study suggests that whilst fun learning games are motivational for lower achievers, high achievers may percieve ‘fun’ learning as a less credible guage of excellence and as a result it undercuts their desire to excel.

In the study, participants were subliminally primed with high-achievement words (e.g. excel, compete, win) and then asked to complete a word-search puzzle.  But instead of describing the task as a serious test of verbal proficiency, the researchers called it “fun.” In the results, high achievers did worse than low achievers. Yet in earlier experiments when the test was described as serious, they did significantly better than the low achievers.

This doesnt discount the learning value of games, but it definately serves as a warning as to how we should frame the experience for learners before they begin. Perhaps the ‘fun’ learning activities should be described as serious and important learning, even if they are fun.

I wonder what the physchographics of game (xbox, playstation etc) players are in temrs of high achievers and low achievers. Do high achievers readily apply their desire to excel to games when they percieve it as just a recreational activity? Anyway interesting stuff.


Curriculum design and a Neurosemantic taxonomy

A team of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University has uncovered how the brain organises concrete nouns like ‘apple’ using fMRI and developed a consistent model that has major implications for how we organise information for learners (taxonomies).

Subjects heard 60 different concrete nouns whilst being imaged and a computer analysed the results looking for patterns. What they discovered were three main semantic factors underpinning the neural representation:

  1. Manipulation – how you physically interact with the object (how you hold it, kick it, twist it, etc.)
  2. Eating – how it is related to eating (biting, sipping, tasting, swallowing)
  3. Shelter – how it is related to shelter or enclosure.

Whilst the study did not examine any benefits to learning from presenting information in a form consistent with this model, it does remind me of the good old model used in learning for many years of how, what and where. I would speculate that aligning a learning taxonomy or curriculum to this model, would enhance its encoding within the brain or at the very last minimise cognitive barriers and the chance of misunderstanding or misreprsentation.

For example, if you were training learners on making coffee, one obvious curriculum would be natural sequencing, where you tackle the task in order of the steps you would actually take to make a cup of coffee. But perhaps we should be chunking the learning based on what you do with the bits of equipment, what the various qualities and tastes of different coffes are and where people like to drink/serve coffee.

Anyway, I know its all a bit speculative, but it’s really intersting to discover that our brain has a consistent, simple survival based taxonomy of its own and we should certainly be mindful of it when sequencing training. As a side note, this researchrs showed that what you were thinking from those 60 concrete nouns could also be predicted, so at least for simple conrete nouns, machine based mind reading is now a reality.


Uncovering the business need, not the training need

When meeting a potential client for an eLearning or blended learning project for the first time, many sales people start with curriculum and scope based questions. This is the wrong focus, becuase it is building in assumptions from the very beginning and may not be in the best interests of the client. It may also mean you miss other opportunities to help the business and win new projects.

A better approach is to ask about what the business is trying to acheive, its vision and mission stuff, its broad strategic plans and so on. Then ask what barriers and opportunities they are currently working on in relation to those plans. Finally you can then explore the connections between the training they think they need and the strategic initiative they believe it addresses.

For example, a client once asked me to quote on an OH&S eLearning module and at the intial meeting, I asked why he wanted this module. The initial response was to help improve safety, however further questioning uncovered that thier insurance premiums would be lowered if all staff were put through some basic safety training. So what appeared to be a need for training, was in fact a business need for cost control. Armed with that information, I was able to develop a lower cost solution leaving budget left over for other things. As that allocation was earmarked for training, I asked if there were areas in their business that actually had poor safety records, ie areas in which accidents did occur. This uncovered the fact that thier drivers who delivered goods had quite a few accidents. We were able to develop a rich, engaging training module on driver safety and as a result reduced the number of accidents caused by their drivers.

So the business need was doubly met, because their worker insurance premiums were lower and now so were their transport insurance claims/premiums. Had I not focused on the business need and stratgy, I would have just created a big long boring mandatory OH&S training package. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it positioned me as a trusted advisor and differentiated me from competitors. In fact he told me I was the only vendor that explored the business needs at both a strategic and operational level before proposing a solution.

In another instance, an exploration with a potential client uncovered that what was needed was business process rengineering, not training. I was able to refer him to another company Whilst I didnt win any business that day, I did win his trust as a vendor who was trying to meet the business need, not just meet a sales quota.

I believe that engaging with clients at a deeper level and understanding their business both stategically and operationally ultimately is more profitable for you the vendor, because your relationship will last longer and things like contract variations and timeline blowouts are negotiated in a collaborative, not an adversarial way because you have consistently demonstrated that you are there to help them, not to just do a transaction.


12 ideas for using brain-based learning

I wanted to take a look back on the month that was and see if there is any connective tissue to be found. Mostly, i’ve blogged about various brain-based mechanisms and speculated about how they might be applied to adult learning.

The common elements seem to be neurotransmitters in stimulating reward centres and mirror neurons in giving us a kind of empathy. I learned that through your gaze, through chocolate, through feeling safe, or through kindness, we start a cascade of chemicals in our brain and that all these things can be harnessed to not only give learning more impact, but it can increase its depth of its encoding in the brain and with an emotional context, even increase its importance to the brain through Amygdala activation.

The other common element is like the biological basis for empathy, with mirror neurons seemingly tricking our brain into believing we are having the experience of the other person, well what we think they are experiencing anyway. What amazing implications this has for role playing, simulations, so on. These mirror neurons are equally activated by representations (eg eLearning) as they are by actual experience!

So heres a look back on these speculations.

Leading and following avatar eyes

When you lead someones gaze with your own it stimulates the reward and motivation centres of your brain. When you follow someone elses gaze, it stimulates those parts of your brain responsible for imagining another persons thoughts. An avatar is telling a story about an accident in which a worker loses an arm in a chainsaw accident. As the story unfolds, the avatar gazes to the left and an image appears of a person looking at their watch, holding a chainsaw, with a chain guard in pieces at their feet and contemplating a stack of logs. This may stimulate the learner to reflect on what caused the logger to lose an arm. Were they under time pressure and so decided not to put the chain guard on the chainsaw?

Alternatively, the avatar could be made to simulate ‘following’. Imagine a game on-screen where the avatar explains the rules of the game and then begins. In the game the learner must be the first to identify the correct object out of several on screen by clicking on it. The avatar could gaze at the various options, making comments about their thoughts on each possible answer, revealing their interior dialogue to the learner and possibly mirroring the learners thoughts. You could delay the discovery of the right answer by the avatar, so that when the learner clicks the object, the avatar’s gaze moves to the correct object and it declares that it has found the object, but the learner found it first.

More here

Cognitive dissonance and visualisation

If we are asked to walk and press a button in our imagination, it takes just as long as if we did it in real life, but moderated by our expectations (so if we erroneously expect it to take longer, then it will in our imagination, but not in real life). Consider cognitive dissonance theory. If we posit a situation that is in line with their old beliefs and ask them to visaulise it, they may be so laden with  expectations (and the sensory experience is so real) about how it will turn out, that it distorts their visualisation of the situation. Resulting in a pretty unrealistic outcome or vision. Then when we invite the learner to execute the same situation in real life, the dissonance will be so much the greater.

More here

Enlisting the subconcious in conscious learning

Plant and load – Place ideas in a learners subconcious by asking them not to think about them. Then when the learner is placed under a heavy mental load, these ideas inevitably surface.

Mirroring – By modeling the actions, behaviours and so on we wish the learner to aquire (and assuming they have at some point executed those behaviours previously), their brain responds as if they were actually doing it themselves.

More here

Laws of human nature and collaborative communities

Parkinsons  law of triviality – Nobody talks about important issues, in case they’re wrong – but they’re happy to talk about less important issues, as they carry less risk. So start with less important issues, on which stakeholders are likely to have opinions, but issues on which they feel safe to comment.

Student syndrome – People generally underestimate how long a task will be, and generally people miss deadlines because they leave things to the last minute. Assign student tasks at the last minute to put them under pressure.

Pareto principle -  80% of the dicussion being generated by 20% of the learners. Make them a moderator to recognise hier power and value. Have learners determine which 20% of the task to do, to get 80% of the results desired.

Salem hypothesis – Education in the engineering disciplines forms a predisposition to creationist viewpoints. Know thine audience and operate (at least initially) within its worldview.

More here

Crafting rewards in learning activities to release neurotransmitters

Chocolate – Chocolate triggers the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. Reward learners with it and encourage them to eat it immediately, thus initiating the chemical release and creating incentive salience. Use smells in the same way to key into pleasurable memories and frame an activity within an emotional context.

Security  – For intense training activities where participants are emotional, be sure to do a follow up activity, that re-establishes the learners in a safe space, dampening their cortisol levels and stimulating reward centres.

Kindness – Use peer-based learning. When people do something for someone else it releases oxytocin, the chemical helpful in reducing stress and bonding humans.

More here